10/03/2011 01:11 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Does Everyone Have a Right to Keep Pets?

The animal rescue shelter I run includes a veterinary hospital for shelter animals and pets of people who can't afford private veterinarians. Almost all the low-income people who use the hospital take excellent care of their pets, though money is often tight. But every once in a while, like any vet office anywhere, we see clients who make us ask, "Why does he even have an animal?"

One walked in last week. A man with a kindly demeanor, he brought in a cat, who at age 18 months had already mothered at least one litter of kittens. Her name was "Kitty" (and all four of her kittens were named the same thing). The man said that he planned on giving the kittens to his girlfriend, though I wonder who would want to get four cats all at once. But that was his plan.

As for Kitty the mother, she was in our hospital because she had fallen off a balcony three days before and was limping. The likely reason that Kitty fell from the balcony was that she was having trouble walking straight because one of her front legs had gotten stuck in her flea collar. Although anyone with eyesight could see that the leg was stuck in the collar, it had been there long enough to become embedded in the skin under her leg. Of course, this doesn't happen overnight.

So here's a case of a man with a cat who had never before seen a vet, had never been vaccinated -- nor had any of her kittens -- had limped around with her leg stuck in her flea collar for at least a month, had fallen from a balcony, and even then had to wait three days before getting any help.

The man, as I said, seemed like a generally kind person; he was certainly no monster. Although he didn't have a lot of money, he worked as a barber, and I imagine that his clients liked him and so did his family and neighbors. And oddly, he seemed very concerned about his cat.

Occasionally our legal system will mandate that someone has lost the right to keep animals. Michael Vick is the most famous example, and courts often apply the same rule to animal hoarders. But other than that, anyone is free to get a dog or a cat, or even several. It doesn't always work out well, as Kitty's story illustrates. That's why we in the animal protection field often ask ourselves if keeping pets is a right to be enjoyed by all.

I think, in the end, it should be, at least for those who have not been legally convicted of animal abuse or neglect. We don't, as a society, want a law restricting the keeping of pets any more than we want to restrict people's right to have children. But sometimes, we all agree, children have to be removed from some parents to protect them. Same with animals. But by then, the damage is done. The animal has suffered, and some die of abuse and neglect.

So clearly there is still a pressing need for education on the most basic needs that animals have. And the responsibility for doing that education falls first and foremost on animal protection groups, like the Washington Animal Rescue League, where I work. That's why we have a humane education program that teaches school children kindness and responsibility. And it's why all our staff know that they're to drop whatever they're doing to talk to anyone who will listen about proper animal care whenever the chance arises. It's what I spend a lot of my own time doing.

We often hear that "it takes a village to raise a child." I believe that. And I think you could say that it takes a village to raise a dog or cat, or any animal, too. We all have to be on the lookout for animals who are not being treated well and intervene when possible. Often, a little education, proffered gently and with kindness, is all that's needed. But sometimes, you have to call the police or local humane society. In the end, that also has educational value, not only for the abuser, but for family, neighbors, and the rest of us.

We contacted the local humane society to follow up with Kitty's owner on the fate of her kittens. Meanwhile, he surrendered Kitty to us. She's had surgery to fix her wound, has been spayed, vaccinated and cared for, and soon she will be looking for new home. At this point, her story has a guaranteed happy ending.



And maybe her ordeal has taught some people something about caring for animals. We can only hope.